Music fans who’ve converted an audio library into digital files for use on an iPod or a computer may also be searching for a way to replace the CD player in their home stereo systems. Bridging the gap between a hard drive and a stereo, music players such as Roku’s SoundBridge give you iPod-like control over your music from the comfort of your easy chair.
The SoundBridge doesn’t offer music storage. Instead, it streams music data over your home network from Macs or PCs running iTunes. Just select the Share My Music option in iTunes’ Sharing preference pane.
There are two SoundBridge models: the $500 M2000 is 17 inches wide and features a 512-by-32-pixel dot matrix display; the $200 (or $250 with a Wi-Fi card) M1000 is 10 inches wide and has a 280-by-16-pixel dot matrix display. The M1000’s display is identical to the display on Slim Devices’ upgraded Squeezebox (
; April 2004—see “Squeezebox versus SoundBridge”). The dot matrix screen lets the SoundBridge display waveform graphics while it’s playing music. It also has a simple remote control.
Both SoundBridge models have the same interesting design—they’re anodized metallic tubes with black plastic caps on each end. You pop off the right-hand cap to attach the SoundBridge’s power cord and RCA, coaxial, or optical audio cables. Behind the left cap are networking options: an Ethernet port and a CompactFlash slot.
Those plastic caps make it inconvenient to attach or detach a cable, but once you plug everything in, the SoundBridge has an undeniably clean design. (A small rubber stand keeps it from rolling away; Roku sells a wall-mounting kit for $30.) It’s hard to read the text on the smaller model from a distance, but the M2000’s display is readable from across a room.
Limited Server Software
The SoundBridge can play only a few music formats natively: MP3, unprotected AAC, and uncompressed AIFF and WAV. (iTunes Music Store files won’t play on the SoundBridge, just as they won’t play on any hardware device other than the iPod and the AirPort Express; a forthcoming software update will bring support for WMA files and Windows-based music servers from Microsoft and Musicmatch.) However, the SoundBridge can play additional formats when it uses its competitor’s software. The SoundBridge can connect to a computer running Slim Devices’ free SlimServer. Once the SoundBridge connects to SlimServer, its menu system changes to match the menu on the Squeezebox and its predecessor, the SliMP3. SlimServer can translate file formats such as FLAC, Apple Lossless, and Ogg Vorbis into a format the SoundBridge can understand. And it provides several other good features, including a Web-browser interface, a clock, and support for browsing for Internet radio streams. (Natively, the SoundBridge can play Internet radio stations only if they have been added to an iTunes playlist.) The SoundBridge’s software also doesn’t properly order songs or artists whose names begin with the— our Beatles tracks were filed under T (Roku says this will be fixed in its forthcoming update).
Although its onboard software may lack polish today, the SoundBridge is a network-connected device, so it can connect to the mothership at Roku and download software updates. This feature works well.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
If you want to listen to your digital music in a computer-free location, you should seriously consider a networked music player. With a uniquely clean design and built-in iTunes support, a readable display, a simple infrared remote control, and a reasonable price, Roku’s SoundBridge M1000 will fit well in your home stereo system.
When Roku announced the SoundBridge last January, the music player had one feature that
Slim Devices’ new Squeezebox couldn’t match: a 280-by-16-pixel dot matrix screen. Hampered by an old-style character-based screen, the Squeezebox couldn’t display graphical visualizers, offer multiple fonts, or generate truly readable large type. But just before the first SoundBridges shipped, Slim Devices updated the Squeezebox ($199; with built-in wireless networking, $279) with a 280-by-16-pixel dot matrix display. The Squeezebox is now much easier to read than either its previous iteration or the SoundBridges because the Squeezebox software supports a variety of easily readable display typefaces. (Users of the character-based Squeezebox can swap out the old display for $69.)
So which player is better? It all depends on your priorities. I lean toward the Squeezebox, which has the superior SlimServer software and more file-format options. But the SoundBridge has several unique traits, including direct iTunes support and that distinctive metallic-tube design. Still can’t decide? Both companies offer a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you can try both devices out.
SoundBridge M1000 and M2000